Happy Shopping

174 - PackagesIn the September of 1880, County Mayo, Ireland, something different happened.

The harvest had been poor and the tenant farmers were struggling to be able to pay their rents and still feed their families. They asked for a 25% reduction, but the landlord refused, offering only 10%. When the tenants refused to pay the job of evicting them fell to the landlord’s agent, the unpopular English Magistrate Captain Charles Boycott.

But rather than fight back, the farmers collectively decided to shun Captain Boycott. His farm labourers stopped harvesting the crops on his farm. His servants left his house and stables, leaving no one to wash his laundry, cook or shoe his horses. Local stores and businesses refused to sell to him, and the postman even refused to deliver his mail.

It didn’t take long for Captain Boycott to admit defeat and three months later he had to be escorted out of Ireland by the 19th Hussars for his own safety. The army also had to provide the driver for the carriage because no one else would do it, and by Christmas the British press were already using the word ‘boycott’ to mean organised ostracism.

Have you ever Boycotted anything ?

It’s a depressing truth that most of us will probably affect the world more, for good or ill, by how we choose to spend our money, than by anything else we do. Freely choosing not to financially support a particular individual, group or company because you disagree with some aspect of their behaviour seems to me entirely reasonable, as is publicising your cause and attempting to convince others to join you. Of course others may feel your boycott is unfair or uninformed, and perhaps organise some form of counter boycott or protest – such is life in a free society.

But in general I’m not a big fan of organised Boycotts.

It’s not that I’m opposed to boycotts in principle – it’s just that they all too often seem to provoke unnecessary venom and hatred between the protagonists. They can often also seem very indiscriminate to me – is it really right to boycott everything grown in Israel because of how their government treats Palestinians, or refuse to buy anything French because of nuclear testing in the Pacific two decades ago ? In addition many boycotts strike me as simply one-sided, unfair or overly simplistic – after all what about the poor treatment of other minorities or nationalities by other countries, or everyone else’s nuclear testing ?

I also find that very often the most vocal critics of particular companies or organisations are perfectly happy to buy and use products from other companies with equally questionable records. After all it is difficult, if every purchase we made was 100% consistent with our ethical views life would become very hard. There are many policies of the Chinese, US and for that matter the UK government I don’t agree with – but my phones made in China, I rely on Google to organise my life, and I also advocate buying local wherever reasonably possible. Being an ethical consumer is complicated ?

Though I’m suspicious of organised boycotts (though there are several I DO support), I do think we all need to engage with the consequences of how we spend our money, both by educating ourselves, and by having the character to make principled decisions as a result.

The magazine Ethical Consumer have recently been running a boycott Amazon campaign, in protest at the very small amount of tax paid by Amazon in the UK compared to its profits – according to their website Amazon currently pay tax at a rate of 0.1%.

My views on this are typically conflicted.

Not paying a fair rate of tax is essentially the rich keeping wealth for themselves instead of distributing it with wider society. I know this is simplistic, that certainly not all public spending is directed at the poor and what is ‘fair’ is ultimately subjective, but many would broadly agree with this sentiment.

On the other hand I know that’s not Amazon’s fault. Governments are responsible for designing the tax system, and they simply haven’t found a good way to regulate an increasingly global and digital economy. Companies in fact have a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders – why would they voluntarily pay a national government more tax than they were required to ?

Lately the UK government, along with many others, have been talking tough on the topic of tax avoidance – but little seems to have actually changed, and in the meantime individual choice, though important, is no substitute for proper regulation.

So what to do . . . ?

Regular visitors to Nextstarfish might have noticed that the site now looks a little different . The Amazon links for books and DVDs have now disappeared. While I’m not exactly boycotting Amazon, I don’t feel comfortable engaging with them to sell through my site anymore. I’ve also removed my Amazon store links and am in the process of closing them down. On a personal level I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime and Amazon MP3 memberships, though if I’m honest I didn’t really use them all that much anyway, and probably should have done it a while ago just to save myself some money. I probably will still order from Amazon from time to time, but will also try harder to find things elsewhere first.

Most importantly I’ve sent the Government an email urging quicker action on fair tax reform.

So am I boycotting Amazon ?

No, not exactly – but I think I can make some better choices, more in line with my beliefs.

I’m not advocating anyone else blindly do the same, we all have to decide these things for ourselves – but if we want to ‘do more good’ with our lives I do think it’s important we keep ourselves informed about the companies and organisations we give our money to and the consequences that result.

We should also try to find time to wrestle with the personal ethical challenges that emerge.

Happy shopping.


(Agree, disagree, want to ask a question or share a story ? Please post a comment – all polite, open debate is welcome)

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Photo by Mark Falardeau (creative commons), via Flickr

From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers

The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead by Sue Gerhart

We’ve substituted money and things for relationships, argues Sue Gerhart, and we must train the next generation of children to be different. We have become too self-centred, self-absorbed, self-interested and self-regarding, with consumer capitalism having fixated us on things at the expense of people. As a result we have weaker family bonds, weaker friendships and weaker social ties, all because we have become entranced by both our ‘stuff’ and ourselves.

Gerhart, a practising psychotherapist, also examines what makes some people behave unselfishly in certain circumstances, while others seem only concerned for themselves. She contrasts the example of ‘rescuers’, who acted to shelter and protect Jewish families during the Holocaust, compared to ‘bystanders’, who did nothing. The principal difference, she argues, is down to early childhood, and in particular the extent of emotional development and learned empathy. Amongst her other observations Gerhart is critical of the concept of ‘problem families’, commenting that it is the other families and individuals in the ‘problem community’ that have failed to be interested and provide support.

If we wish to construct a more caring, collaborative and less divided society, Garhart argues, we need to support the caring qualities that are learned in early life and can best do this by giving responsive care and attention to all our children’s wants and needs. Negative and critical parenting, along with neglect, disinterest, lack of time or attention, and family breakdown all may significantly reduce the degree of empathy in adult life, and this, Gerhart argues, will shape the future of our society. [Amazon UK US]


Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish

For millions of years if we liked something, we chased after more of it – more food, more status and more stuff. In the West we now have more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford. Yet we still want more – even though we’re destroying the planet in the process and it’s leaving us sick, tired, overweight, angry, unhappy and in debt.

Enough covers a lot of ground, spanning aspiration and celebrity culture, how our ownership of things defines our status, the brain chemistry of shopping and ‘buyer’s remorse’, our quest to constantly ‘know’ more information, through to how our desires can overpower our appetite, so it can’t tell us we’re full. Much of the analysis is from an evolutionary and biological perspective, explaining how our impulses for more fulfil sensible functions in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but have failed to adapt to life in our modern culture.

The book presents a compelling argument that our desires for more of everything have driven us almost to the point of planetary ecosystem collapse. Will our wiring for more force us into decline and demise, or can we learn to control our impulses ? Fortunately the book doesn’t just present an analysis of modern consumerism, it also tries to offer practical advice for ‘curing’ ourselves of the affliction, by identifying the elusive ‘enough point’ – the point at which having even more makes us no happier.

The author, John Naish, is also the man behind the Landfill Prize, an award given for the most pointless, gimmick-laden piece of junk produced that year, with previous nominess including laser guided scissors and automatic cucumber peelers. [Amazon UK US]


The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

Happiness is elusive, observes Michael Foley, and many aspects of modern life are making it even harder to find. Ironically the book also ponders the futility of trying to obtain happiness and meaning through the purchase of books, which often remain unread on people’s shelves !

In a deep analysis of many aspects of modern life Foley identifies several cultural preoccupations which  form barriers to our happiness. We have a damaging ‘culture of potential’ he argues, obsessively focussing on the future and not concentrating sufficiently on the present. This leads us to over-value youth and under-value experience, to obsessively travel to new destinations and seek out new experiences, to constantly desire the next thing, job or partner, which results in an belief that we’re constantly missing something.

Another of the barriers he identifies is the ‘culture of entitlement’, leading us to feel we always deserve the best, that we should be allowed act as we wish, or that we are in some way special. The expectation, status-obsession and inflated ego that this inevitably gives rise to, often struggles to come to terms with the harsh reality of life, leading to anger, injustice, resentment and depression.

Instead, Foley argues, we should work to change the way we think about the world, being more focussed on the present, more willing to find pleasure in simple everyday experience, more accepting of whatever the world throws at us and less driven to define ourselves in terms of symbols of  success. [Amazon UK US]


The irony of promoting books opposed to consumerism is not lost on me :)  Borrow them from a library if you can. If not, then pass on to a friend when you’ve finished with them . . . don’t just leave them sitting on your shelf.

Photo by Coolinsights

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Last time you went to the supermarket how did you carry your shopping home ?

Your own fabric bags, durable PVC bags-for-life from the checkout, or did you take the free disposable plastic bags ? Perhaps you’re so image-confident that you used an oldschool wheeled shopping trolley, like grandmother used to – perhaps not !

This one really should be straightforward shouldn’t it?

We’re all aware of the issues: disposable plastic bags take energy to manufacture and transport, they cause litter, and many end-up as oceanic debris or lasting for hundreds of years in landfills. Reusing our own bags costs us nothing and causes us hardly any inconvenience. We’re even reminded and encouraged by the supermarkets, nudging us to do the right thing, by offering us loyalty points for reusing our bags.

So how are we doing ?

Not that well it turns out – around 10 billion lightweight disposable bags are handed free to UK shoppers every year. That’s about 200 each!

Obviously the ‘problem of carrier bags’ is a bit more wicked than we thought.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that we find changing our habits quite a struggle. We’re able to go shopping 24/7, and as a result it’s just not that big a deal any more. We drop-in to the supermarket for ‘top-up-shops’ more frequently than we ever used to – no planning, no lists.

Having our own bags with us when we go requires preparedness, and the reality is that all too often we’ve left them at home because we were too tired/busy to put them straight back in the car after the last time. We’re frequently rushing – either to get home, get to work, or get somewhere else, and have usually got a lot more on our minds than remembering to take our bags. We seem to have collective amnesia.

Having forgotten the bags we then may experience something psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

We know we should reuse our bags, but have forgotten to, so to stop feeling bad and guilty we create mental excuses to justify ourselves – our time is too valuable to worry about something as trivial as carrier bags, besides we do plenty of other things for the environment, and it’s really an issue for the supermarkets or the government to sort out, and anyway what difference will a couple of carrier bags really make – we also promise ourselves we’ll reuse these bags next time.

Not using plastic bags might not save the world alone, but it’s possibly more important than you think, not just because of the energy footprint and plastic pollution, it’s also important for another reason. The problem of plastic bags is representative of a lot of other mass behaviour issues, from transport to food, where similar factors apply – relationships between convenience, cost, personal choice, responsibility, what everyone else is doing and how well we understand and accept the facts all play a part in determining our collective behaviour. Can good motives and gentle policy nudges make us all ‘do the right thing’, or is something else required ?

Breaking bad habits, like constantly forgetting to reuse bags, is hard – but we can make things easier for ourselves if rather than focussing only on the things we want to stop doing, we try to focus more on the things we want to start doing. It’s hard to say NO to something, until we’ve already said YES to something we want more.

If we cultivate a habit of returning our empty bags to the car after we unpack them, we’d have more chance of breaking our bad habit of taking new bags at the checkout.

So problem solved ?

Well, yes and no . . . how damaging are plastic bags anyway ?

Clearly manufacturing and transporting 10 billion bags a year in the UK alone, then giving them away free so they can be used once and then almost immediately thrown away  - causing local litter, filling landfills, and some ending up in the worlds oceans, isn’t going to win any environmental awards. The question is what are the alternatives ?

In February the UK Environment Agency published a report on the Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. It suggests that a typical cotton ‘bag-for-life’ must be reused 171 times before it has a lower carbon footprint than a typical HDPE disposable bag, assuming the disposable bag is used once and then disposed of as a bin-liner for kitchen waste going to landfill. Crucially the report also states that cotton bags-for-life are, on average, actually only reused 51 times before being thrown away – making disposable HDPE bags much more environmentally friendly, at least in terms of carbon footprint !

Needless to say this has proved very controversial. In fact the report was quickly removed from the Environment Agency website, but with a bit of snooping around you can find copies elsewhere on the web if you’re interested – try here.

So things are more complex than they first appeared, and there are strong opinions on both sides – the same can be said of many other environmental issues. Sometimes we need to try to see things more simply.

It’s easy to get distracted by complexity and uncertainty, but unless we make a living from research or devising policy, the question that really matters is  - what should my own personal response be?

In the case of plastic bags, I’d suggest we simply keep reusing whatever bags we already have whenever we go shopping, keep doing so for as long as possible, and when we do eventually have to get new bags, choose them carefully based largely on durability.

In my own case I’ll also try to make sure I return my used bags to the car !

I’ll let Kermit have the last word.


Photo by Iragerich